BEAVERTON, Ore. – They call it “Porterball.”
And the Portland Timbers’ 2-0 win last weekend over the Houston Dynamo was the finest example to date of what new head coach Caleb Porter is trying to accomplish during his first season in the Rose City.
It started on a Donovan Ricketts goal kick. First, the Portland backline began a search for an opening with a series of passes. With right back Jack Jewsbury pressing higher, he found midfielder Diego Chará at midfield.
The Colombian laid off to attacking midfielder Darlington Nagbe, shifted upfield after an injury to Diego Valeri forced Porter to bring on Kalif Alhassan at one of three forward spots in a 4-3-3 formation.
Chará, seeing an opening with three defenders collapsing around Nagbe, streaked down the right flank. Nagbe made a perfect pass back to Chará, Alhassan and fellow forward Ryan Johnson made their runs, and the attack was on.
Alhassan peeled off at the top of the box, allowing Johnson (right) space in the area to receive Chará’s cross for a leaping, left-footed finish past Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall to break a scoreless stalemate in the 55th minute.
The statistical breakdown leading up the goal was impressive: 20 passes completed among 10 different players over 95 seconds of possession, unprecedented in the Timbers’ MLS incarnation.
Try talking to Porter about “Porterball,” however, and the young coach cringes.
It’s not that Porter doesn’t believe in what he’s preaching – he does, with a passion. He merely wants those quick to elevate him to a level he has yet to earn through consistent results, to know that what he’s doing is not exactly groundbreaking – even if it may be in Portland.
During a lengthy conversation with MLSsoccer.com on a cloudy Tuesday morning after the team’s first training session following the Houston win, talk of possession and passing and attacking quickly turned toward topics less tangible.
“I don’t know how good it was,” Porter said. “It was three points. For me, I’m not bothered by quantifying how good it was. At the end of the day, we want to win games. Simple. I don’t care how we win, but I do believe in playing a certain way only because I believe it will help us have a better chance to win games.”
Therein lies Porter’s dilemma.
His style has resulted in uncharted territory in a city desperate for a winner after two seasons since joining the league. Seven players had 40 or more successful passes against Houston. Four had 50 or more. And after five games – three ties, a win and a loss heading into Sunday’s home game against San Jose (10:30 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) – Porter’s style of play has resulted in tangible trends.
The Timbers lead the league with a 513.4 pass-per-game average and are fourth with a 14.4 shots-per-game average. Their nine goals is the second-highest total in the league.
Before the Houston game, they led the league in final-third entries (87.25) and were third in average penalty-area entries (38.75).
Their eight second-half goals are tied for second-best behind only Chivas USA (9), best exemplified in last Saturday’s second-half brace for Johnson and come-from-behind draws against New York, Seattle and Colorado.
Basically, from assists to shots on goal to successful passes, the Timbers are among the league leaders in most every offensive category. It’s just what Porter promised when he was introduced to the Rose City in January and just what owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson assured when they announced the former University of Akron coach's hiring last summer.
But for Porter, it’s simply a means to an end. It’s just the best way to win games. And winning is what Porter knows will truly judge his hire as a success of failure.
“For me it’s less about the style, it’s more about the end result and the substance,” he said. “Substance is what I’m looking for. And I think in that game we saw substance. … First and foremost, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for results and I’m looking for substance. People can talk about the passes and the style, but I’m looking for substance.”
But for the first time in their MLS history, the substance is the style.
Players who have been with the club since the beginning – Jack Jewsbury, Rodney Wallace and Chará – are simply doing things they’ve never before done. Chará’s adjustment to a more offensive role in the second half against Houston was a revelation. The veteran Jewsbury, who was mostly ineffective in a number of different positions last year, looks transformed as a defensive leader and offensive scene setter (he completed 58 passes Saturday, second most on the team). Wallace played arguably his best game in a Timbers uniform with 50 passes and a shot on goal.
And Nagbe (right) also appears more comfortable now that the offense doesn’t revolve solely around him. He has the most successful passes in the final third (93) of any player in the league.
“Confidence, that’s the key,” Porter said. “They feel good, they feel confident, I think they know what their role is. They know how they fit into the team. They know I like them as players and that I’m looking at them not for what they don’t have but what they bring to the table.”
Jewsbury has started three games this season – the first two against Seattle and Colorado as a holding midfielder and last Saturday at right back. And even though his position has varied, Jewsbury said that he, like everyone else on the team, has a clear idea of what role to play.
“You never know how it’s going to go in terms of that buy in factor with new coaches,” Jewsbury said. “But from Day 1, there’s been a certain level of trust in the locker room with guys and their trust in coach. And I think that really shows on the field because guys really want to go out there and get three points not only for the organization but for him as well.”
Porter said developing relationships with his players has been one key in their quick buy-in to a style many expected would take time to unfold. Whether it’s a text message or a note or a quick conversation after training, Porter said he’s constantly communicating with players about his expectations.
“I am big on just staying in touch with them all the time, not just as a soccer player but as a person too,” Porter said. “I think that’s very important if you want to have a good respect, you’ve got to show that you care beyond soccer.”
Porter has also shown that what he expects can be adjusted from game to game and half to half. In road games against Colorado and Seattle, he fielded more defensive-orientated lineups and formations. He said there are going to be games when the product on the field is ugly, but that’s where the substance fits into the equation. That was true when Portland gutted out a not-so-pretty 2-2 draw against the Rapids on March 30, the club’s first-ever point in Colorado.
“The No. 1 thing that I’m looking for out of this team is honesty, pressure, fight, Charácter and all the intangible quantities you need in a winning team,” he said. “Everybody’s going to talk about the attacking side, the possession, the stylistic side. I’m not bothered by that.”
Jewsbury (right) said he’s been a part of possession-style teams before. That’s not unique. He said what makes Porter different is his desire to constantly press forward.
“It’s not just keeping the ball to get possession stats, it’s keeping the ball to open up other teams and create chances off of that,” Jewsbury said. “And I think that’s what’s fun for guys. Because everyone loves to have the ball and play with the ball, but at the end of the day you want to push forward and create chances out of it. And that’s what we’re doing.”
If the substance – or the style – results in more winning, Porter will certainly have to get used to “Porterball.” He just wants people to know there’s more than goes into it than numbers.
“It’s going to be part of our identity, certainly, is the possession,” he said. “But again, I’m not bothered by aesthetics or style. Everybody wants to make it into that. I’m about winning games. Simple. I could care less how it looks. But I believe the more we have the ball, obviously the better chance we have to win. It’s not rocket science.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.